Dirk Draulans, biologist and science journalist for Belgian Knack magazine, wrote an interesting article on the question of violence in human life (Violence is deeply rooted in us – The biology of terror; PDF: Het geweld zit diep in ons – De biologie van terreur). He drew from several recent findings concerning the ongoing struggle with violence between and within human communities since prehistoric times. Perhaps not surprisingly, he came across questions as well as insights that are at the core of René Girard’s mimetic theory and its explanation of human culture. So I can only advice Draulans to read the work of René Girard and other scholars of mimetic theory. As I’ll try to show, it may resolve some of the ambiguities and dilemmas he touches upon in his article. I’ve translated parts of the article from Dutch, emphasizing certain sentences, before commenting from a Girardian point of view.
First of all, Draulans points to the importance of imitation or mimesis in the origin and maintenance of human culture:
Our culture is not in our genes, but is transmitted by copying and learning behavior.
In this context Draulans refers to a thought experiment conducted by scientists who specialize in the emergence of culture. More specifically, he refers to an article in New Scientist, Island of wild children: Would they learn to be human? (Christopher Kemp, June 3, 2015) that contains the experiment:
100 babies. No adults. One island. Without language, culture or tools, what would they become and how would their own children evolve?
Or, as Draulans puts it:
This led to the key question whether we humans are born violent.
Here’s how Draulans continues:
Quite a few scientists who participated in the thought experiment assumed that there soon would be tensions within the group, especially when food is scarce. Indeed, biologically speaking, violence is deeply rooted in us. Chimpanzees, who are models for the ape-men who were our ancestors, are ‘naturally’ violent. The world of chimpanzees is organized around the members of their own group, and neighboring groups are by definition enemies to be fought. Last year, Biological Reviews published an analysis of the skulls of australopithecines, chimpanzee-like ancestors of man who lived several million years ago. The results show that their hands were so evolved that they could easily make fists, not only for handling equipment but also to commit violence. Some skulls, especially of men, were hardened to better absorb punches. Yet in the course of our evolution we gradually became more gentle. We had to, if we wanted to survive in a world with ever more people, many of them we didn’t know. […] An average person would find groups of 150 people or more difficult to handle, for he wouldn’t know everyone personally.
Although culture and morality became very powerful in the course of our history, they could never prevent the resurgence of extreme violence. The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences published a study of a 7,000 year old mass grave in Germany. It showed that dozens of people, including children, were brutally maimed and killed. It is not the only mass grave from that period. The question is whether the violence was provoked by famine, by the need for survival. It could just as well have been an expression of the expansion of one group at the expense of another, without any further information about the groups in question.
Scientists are struggling with the difficult balance between our propensity to violence on the one hand and our ability to cooperate on the other. This is shown by two books published last year. In A Talent for Friendship an American ethnographer develops the idea that so-called primitive tribes are not as violent as we were led to believe for a long time. On the contrary, they would have had systems to learn to accept strangers as friends […]. They would even have had ‘ritual battlefields’ to turn hostility into friendship. In another book, Virtuous Violence (CLICK HERE FOR A PRESENTATION IN SLIDES), both an American anthropologist and psychologist defend the surprising statement that violence often is not the result of a diminished moral sense, but rather the reverse: people sometimes use violence because they believe that it’s the best thing to do. They often feel ‘morally obliged’ to be violent.
‘Normal’ people can be victims of thinking in terms of one’s own group just as much as terrorists. It is a modern variant of the biological tribal feeling. If we can position ourselves as a group against another group, feelings of empathy easily erode as we cannot possibly sympathize with large numbers of strangers. People more easily commit violence in groups than on their own, partly because they then can evade personal responsibility. Research into activity of certain areas in the brain clearly revealed this. Thus our brains not always contribute to the accomplishment of a more livable world. That is not their concern. It should be possible with our culture, though. But unfortunately it is not always as powerful as it should be.
In a video compilation I made (on the origin of cultures) as an introduction to mimetic theory (click here), anthropologist David Watts filmed an event that normally doesn’t happen within groups of chimpanzees. True, chimpanzees often collectively inflict extreme violence on individual members of an outside community, but they would not do this to a member of their own community. And yet, that’s what Watts witnessed. It happened in the largest group that was ever observed in the wild, with over a 150 chimpanzees. Indeed, as Draulans writes, groups of 150 people or more become difficult to handle, and people no longer know each member of the group well. It is no surprise that chimpanzees experience similar problems in such a large group: tensions rise, and feelings of empathy are not as strong for every member. Interestingly, Yuval Noah Harari also stresses the critical threshold of 150 members in his bestseller Sapiens – A Brief History of Humankind (Part One, Chapter 2 The Tree of Knowledge – The Legend of Peugeot):
In the wake of the Cognitive Revolution, gossip helped Homo sapiens to form larger and more stable bands. But even gossip has its limits. Sociological research has shown that the maximum ‘natural’ size of a group bonded by gossip is about 150 individuals. Most people can neither intimately know, nor gossip effectively about, more than 150 human beings.
Even today, a critical threshold in human organisations falls somewhere around this magic number.
What Draulans only partly emphasizes in his article is the fact that violent tensions within and between groups of primates may also occur when ‘survival’ (of the individual or of the group as a ‘species’) is not exactly the issue. In groups of chimpanzees, males constantly vie for dominance and form frequently changing alliances in order to move up the hierarchy. This has to do with an increased mimetic ability. In many circumstances a group benefits from mimetic (i.e. imitative) ability as survival and other skills are more easily passed on from one member of the group to others, but in the context of mutually imitated desires the mimetic ability often leads to violent conflict. Even if there’s enough food and water for everybody, mimetic desire might cause violence as individuals do not want to share the objects of their desire (for an example of two babies fighting over two identical cans of coke that could easily be shared, click here). Collective violence of chimpanzees against individual members of an outside community thus also has a social function: it reunites normally competing males of the same group against a common enemy. This behavior forms the basis for the scapegoat mechanism in (primitive) human communities as it is described by René Girard.
It should come as no surprise that the rare event of collective violence against a member of one’s own group precisely occurred in an exceptional group of chimpanzees with over 150 members. Indeed: the bigger the group, the bigger the tensions, and the more individual members may fall outside ‘circles of empathy,’ thus running the chance of becoming the victim of a ‘reuniting collective violence.’ According to Girard, events of collective violence, releasing tensions within one’s own group, would have happened more in primitive human communities (as those became larger and as humans have even more mimetic ability and thus potentially destructive mimetic desires than other primates). This, again according to Girard, eventually resulted in rituals belonging to the first signs of human culture: ritual sacrifices (for more on Girard’s account on the origin of religion and ‘the sacred,’ click here). These rituals try to distinguish so-called ‘good,’ ‘justified’ or ‘regenerating’ violence from ‘bad’ or ‘destructive’ violence. For instance, in the Andes of Bolivia descendants of the Inca stage a festival called Tinku to receive a good harvest from ‘the mountain spirits’ (this is also shown in the video compilation, on the origin of cultures – click here for more). Almost every year someone dies during this ritual battle, that nevertheless still often ends in an embrace of the fighters. Indeed, this ritual sacrifice of human blood wants to turn potential destructive enmity over scarcity of food into the maintenance of peace because of a good harvest. Honoring the spirits in maintaining certain taboos and sacrifices prevents their wrath (perceived as some sort of supernatural punishment by the contagious disease of destructive violence). A recent study in Science (click here pdf) claims that beliefs like these were necessary to make societies socially and politically more complex: indeed, the establishment of periodic ritual sacrifices would release tensions in a more controlled, structured way.
As said, all these observations from mimetic theory may resolve some of the dilemmas in the article of Dirk Draulans as well as nuance some of his statements. Summarized:
1) Humans are not ‘naturally violent.’ We don’t automatically feel nor need to suppress the urge to attack others. What is the case is that we are ‘naturally mimetic’ and that mimetic tendencies in the context of desire might lead to violent conflict (read also pdf The Two Sides of Mimesis by Vittorio Gallese). As Draulans observes, commenting on the study of a prehistoric mass grave:
The question is whether the violence was provoked by famine, by the need for survival. It could just as well have been an expression of the expansion of one group at the expense of another…
Even if there’s enough food and water for everybody, mimetic desire might cause violence as individuals do not want to share the objects of their desire (again for the aforementioned example of two babies fighting over two identical cans of coke that could easily be shared, click here). Humans sometimes even suppress instinctual needs and desires because of mimetically enhanced ambitions. Germany, for instance, entered the first world war as one of the most powerful nations in the world. It had no shortage of consumer products, let alone of basic food supplies and water. It mainly wanted to express its supremacy. Of course, tragically, Germany came out of the war as a broken nation (for more, click here). On an individual level, things like anorexia would not be possible if humans were mainly guided by their ‘natural needs.’ Moreover, a recent study once again reveals what happens when mimetic desire is not kept in check by certain beliefs (“I have to accept my social position because of karma”) or taboos (“I cannot question the authority of my king because god will punish me if I do so”). The article of this study, in Nature (October 15, 2015), Conspicuous wealth undermines cooperation, concludes:
Wealth inequality and wealth visibility can both potentially affect levels of cooperation in a society and overall levels of economic success. Akihiro Nishi et al. use an online game to test how the two factors interact. Surprisingly, wealth inequality by itself did not damage cooperation or overall wealth as long as players do not know about the wealth of others. But when players’ wealth was visible to others, inequality had a detrimental effect.
2) Human culture (and morality – Draulans seems to use this term as a synonym) arises both as an attempt to suppress violence and as an attempt to justify so-called ‘necessary’ violence. Draulans refers to the ambiguity of ‘ritual battlefields,’ which is in itself a way out of the dilemma of ‘cooperation vs violence.’ Following René Girard and mimetic theory, basic cultural religious institutions such as ritual (sacrifices) allow for a fundamental distinction between so-called ‘good’ and ‘bad’ violence and provide individual members of human communities with the collective means to justify the violence they inflict on others. This justification is part of what Girard calls the scapegoat mechanism. As it provides ‘distinctions,’ ‘definitions’ and ‘(psychological and social) identity’ against the threat of undifferentiated, ‘contagious’ violence, the scapegoat mechanism also forms the basis of human culture according to Girard. It might shed more light on this quote by Draulans:
‘Normal’ people can be victims of thinking in terms of one’s own group just as much as terrorists. It is a modern variant of the biological tribal feeling. If we can position ourselves as a group against another group, feelings of empathy easily erode as we cannot possibly sympathize with large numbers of strangers. People more easily commit violence in groups than on their own, partly because they then can evade personal responsibility. Research into activity of certain areas in the brain clearly revealed this. Thus our brains not always contribute to the accomplishment of a more livable world. That is not their concern.
I guess ‘reason’ alone doesn’t make us human. There are ‘matters of the heart’ too, guiding us to use our brains not to build weapons of mass destruction but to build ‘bridges of solidarity’…
Anyway, Dirk, read René Girard!